The GRE: It’s Like the SAT for Graduate School Admissions

A comic in the teacher's lounge: "I was going to teach them the meaning of life...but it wasn't on the test."

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The GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) is kind of like the SAT for graduate school. It is a standardized admissions test, and graduate schools and many business schools factor a student’s results into application consideration. Like the SAT, it consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and writing. The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are graded on a scale of 130 to 170, while the writing section is awarded between one and six points. Depending on how the test is taken (on paper or on a computer), it lasts between 3.5 and 3.75 hours. It costs $205.

The computer-based GRE consists of one writing section in which students are asked to write two essays, one analyzing an issue and the other, an argument. Each essay is allotted 30 minutes. This will occur at the beginning of the test. After the writing is completed, there will be two verbal reasoning sections and two quantitative reasoning sections, each with 20 questions, that will appear in random order. For the purposes of research, you may also receive an extra (unscored) verbal or quantitative section during the test. You will not be informed of which section it is, so approach all sections equally. Each verbal section lasts 30 minutes, while each quantitative section lasts 35 minutes.

Taking the GRE on paper is slightly different from taking it on the computer. There are no unscored research sections, and both the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections have five extra questions each, meaning that each section gets an additional five minutes.

What types of questions are asked in each section?

Like the SAT, the GRE is not trying to test your innate knowledge of any particular subject matter but rather your ability to make arguments, analyze texts, interpret data, and solve simple math problems.

The writing section is intended to test your ability to write clearly and concisely, develop supporting arguments and provide evidence in their favor, and develop an effective discussion in response to a question. Your ability to control and use the English language is tested as well.

The verbal reasoning section contains multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and “select-in-passage” type questions. The “select-in-passage” questions ask you to pick the sentence from a written passage that answers the question being asked. This section tests your ability to draw conclusions from a passage, understand the English language and word definitions, be able to highlight important points in a text, and understand the intent, assumptions, and perspective of an author.

The quantitative reasoning section contains multiple-choice, comparison (greater than, less than, equal to, or unknown), and numeric entry questions. For questions that require a calculator, you will be provided with one during the test (an on-screen calculator for the computer-based test and an ETS-supplied calculator for the paper test). This section tests your knowledge of math through algebra and geometry (similar to the math you are required to know for the SAT) and your ability to interpret and analyze data.

Students preparing for the GRE on computers

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How do I sign up?

To register for the GRE, you need to create an account. You must use your real name as shown on a driver’s license, passport, or other photo ID card, as the name you sign up with is the same name that will be registered for the test; your ID must match. If you are taking the test outside of the United States, you may have different ID requirements. You may register online provided you are not requesting disability- or health-related accommodations, fee waivers, standby (registering for a full center and hoping that space becomes available), or a Monday test (for religious reasons).

  • To search for computer-based tests in your location, click here.
  • To view paper-based tests, click here.

If you require accommodations during the test, you must get them approved by ETS through postal mail or email before registering for your test. Information about what forms you must supply and where to send them is available here. If you meet the requirements for a fee waiver, you will only have to pay 50% of the test cost. There are no full waivers granted by ETS, but you may be able to receive other financial support from your institution or another program.

Since the GRE is expensive to take, you don’t want to cancel your scheduled test date unless it’s an emergency. If you must cancel your test, doing so more than four days before you are scheduled to sit for the GRE guarantees you a 50% refund, otherwise you will receive no refund.

How do I study for the GRE?

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) has released a 119-page practice book for the paper GRE, which can be found here. A list of other free ETS-recommended GRE study materials can be found here. The Princeton Review allows you to search for GRE practice tests and study sessions in your area. These resources may be free or cost a nominal fee, but getting in some practice is key if you want to ace the GRE. You may also find GRE test preparation books at your local Barnes and Noble or on Amazon. If you’re a self-motivated person, creating a study plan and hitting the books may be the easiest way to learn.

A girl studying for the GRE in the library

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One special thing about the computer-based GRE is this: The better you do on your first set of verbal or quantitative reasoning questions, the harder the second section will be. The questions base themselves off of your answers, so it’s important to start strong. Learn some root words, take practice tests, and revisit high school math. Start studying early, too. Deciding two days before the test that you’ll start studying is a recipe for failure, and you don’t want to shell out another $205 to take it again. Start preparing at least a month in advance.

Are there any other things to know?

  • Scores stay valid for a five-year period.
  • You can take the computer-based test five times in a year, but you must wait three weeks between each test. You can take the paper-based test as often as it is offered.
  • There is no partial credit on multiple-choice questions.
  • For computer-based test takers, you will receive unofficial scores for the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections immediately after completing the test. Official scores will become available about two weeks after the test.
  • You can send your GRE scores to four institutions without having to pay an additional fee. Additional score reports cost $27 each and the directions for ordering can be found here.

The GRE offers subject tests in biochemistry and cell biology, biology, chemistry, literature, math, physics, and psychology. Depending on your prospective graduate institution and program, you may be required to submit scores on a subject test. Check with your prospective school’s graduate admissions office before taking a subject test. For more information, click here.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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